On Wednesday 5 to Thursday 6 July, the High Court will hear a legal challenge that aims to force the Government to toughen up its plan for reducing sewage dumped in England’s rivers and seas. Good Law Project is supporting the Marine Conservation Society, Richard Haward’s Oysters and surfer and activist Hugo Tagholm as they argue that the Government’s strategy is inadequate, allowing water companies to pollute waters and beaches for another 27 years.
England’s sewers were designed with 14,500 storm overflows to stop them becoming overwhelmed, allowing a mixture of surface water and sewage to be discharged during heavy rainfall. But according to the Environment Agency, these overflows are now used on a routine basis. Water companies discharged untreated sewage through storm overflows more than 300,000 times in 2022 for a total of 1.7 million hours.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) published the Storm Overflows Discharge Reduction Plan to tackle this in August last year. It imposed a deadline of 2035 for reducing the sewage flowing into bathing waters and areas of ecological importance, but gave companies until 2050 to stop discharges elsewhere.
This legal challenge, which has been backed by cross-party MPs, aims to force the Government to bring forward these deadlines and introduce tougher targets.
Facing pressure from this case, DEFRA has already announced a consultation on expanding its storm overflows plan to include protections for coastal and estuarine waters. This initial win for the claimants, which the Marine Conservation Society hailed as “a huge victory for our seas”, means that one of the legal grounds has already been settled before even being heard in the courtroom.
Success in this case could set a landmark precedent, which would allow others to use an ancient English legal principle called the Public Trust Doctrine to compel those in power to protect the natural environment.
Legal Director of Good Law Project, Emma Dearnaley, said:
“The public is – rightly – angry and upset and calling for urgent action on sewage pollution.
“This hearing is a huge moment for the future of our rivers and seas. This is our chance to force the Government to put in place a robust plan to put an end to the sewage scandal blighting our country.“Success in this case could also set a significant legal precedent by reviving an ancient legal principle that would require the Government to take positive steps to protect our shared natural resources. This is a potential game changer for future environmental challenges.”
CEO of the Marine Conservation Society, Sandy Luk, said:
“This is a momentous court case to hold the UK Government to account for our right to a clean and healthy ocean.
“This is achievable, but we need urgent and decisive action from the Government to make it happen. For the sake of people and planet, we need sewage-free seas.”
8th generation oysterman, and Director of Operations at Richard Haward’s Oysters, Tom Haward, said:
“For eight generations the Haward family have grown oysters in Essex and sold them throughout the UK and beyond. Our livelihood balances completely on water quality.
“We work hard to protect and nurture the environment we rely on to produce our oysters, and the relentless dumping of sewage into our seas risks destroying something so precious.
“Just as we invest in our business so that my daughter and future generations can be proud of and continue our legacy, so too should water companies be held accountable and invest in ensuring British waterways are flourishing and safe ecosystems that future generations can enjoy”.